Why Do We Go to Prom?

Why Do We Go to Prom?

Great hair, great dresses, and great expectations.
The prom has long functioned as a rite of passage for American teenagers as they act
out fantasies of a (generally unattainable) adult ideal. But outside of being the center
of a ton of teenage dreams, prom is also big business. Money magazine cites a 2015 Visa
survey as reporting that the American family spends an average of $919 per student attending
prom. Why might American families fork over so much
for just one night? Well, today, we’ll discuss where we got this funny little word from,
how a high school party evolved into a teenage gateway to adult life, and why filmmakers
love to make prom movies that critique American culture. So first a little background on the word.
The word prom is short for promenade, a French term used to describe a leisurely walk or
the spaces in which this walk might take place. The word “promenade” also describes various
dance positions (for example, promenade your partn’r is a staple of American square dancing).
But by the late 19th century, prom started to be used to describe a formal dance at a
school. A 2014 article in Slate charts the frequency
of prom-related words in English texts. In the first half of the 20th century, prom was
most used to designate a cotillion-style ball. During the 1960s and 1970s, prom-related terminology
appeared less frequently, which the article postulates was because more pressing issues,
including the Vietnam War and the counterculture movement, were on teenagers’ minds. In the
1980s, usage increased, but shifted from designating a simple dance to describing a big school
blow out. Blow outs: not just for hair. But how did prom become such a critical “rite
of passage” into American adulthood? Let’s start by clarifying the phrase “rites
of passage.” The ethnographer, Arnold van Gennep, coined this in 1909 to describe a
ceremony marking an individual’s transition from one social (or religious) status to another.
van Gennep maintained that a “rite of passage” has three stages. The first involves preliminal events–separation
from family, breaking with routine, leaving something behind. The second involves liminal
activities–a choreographed transition, during which an element of one’s identity is destroyed
to make room for something new. The third involves postliminal proceedings–the changed
individual is reincorporated into society. In pre-industrial societies, religious coming-of-age
rites often coincided with the onset of puberty. During the Jewish bar or bat mitzvah, a 12-
to 13-year old transitions to adulthood. And at around 14-years old, Roman Catholic children
are considered old enough to understand the challenges of living a Christian life and
are “confirmed.” Today these ceremonies (along with others
from diverse religious and cultural traditions) remain important to many Americans. However
they occur long before a child obtains legal adult status in America (being allowed to
drive, marry, own property, buy alcohol and tobacco, enter military service, and vote).
And if you want more on 18-year old as adult then check out our video. But, given that
proms occur closer to this legal coming-of-age, for some this party functions as a secular
rite of passage. A key element of the American prom fantasy
is that the individual can transcend class boundaries for one magical night. Sociologist
Amy Best explains that the expansion of American public schools during the late 19th- and early
20th- centuries gave more working-class children access to formal education. They also had
the chance to attend the kind of formal dances that were once only the provenance of the
wealthy. She writes that prom became a “‘popularized’ debutante ball” that allowed “anyone attending
high school the opportunity to feel as though they too were ‘coming out’” like Dianna
Ross. American filmmakers have long been drawn to this fantasy of social mobility. Cinematic representations of prom can provide
great insight into broader social attitudes within a culture. And many filmmakers reproduce
van Gennep’s three “rites of passage” stages in a film formula that you’ll recognize. Stage 1: A teenager enacts the “death”
of their childhood self. They distance themselves emotionally from their family. They engage
in a performance of “adult” roles (make-up; hair; prom king, queen, or tricked out outfits).
They give and wear flowers. They leave their childhood home in a fantasy vehicle which
maybe has a hot tub on the back. Stage 2: In the liminal space of prom, the teenager
is tested. They may get involved in a fight or (BETTER YET!) a dance-off. They navigate
peer pressure. They decide whether to try various mind- (or mood-) altering substances.
They deflect or initiate sexual advances. In short, they scrutinize adult culture and
determine who they hope to be within it. Stage 3: The new adult is incorporated into society.
If the prom takes place in the film’s penultimate scene, this might involve busting out some
“adult” dance moves or engaging in a very “adult” kiss. What makes these formulaic prom scenes interesting
is the degree to which filmmakers use them to foreground what is wrong with the adult
society into which the teenager hopes to emerge. Take one of the earliest prom scenes in American
film: Frank Capra’s 1946 classic, It’s a Wonderful Life. George Bailey has been working
for his father for four years, saving money for college. He reconnects with 18-year old
Mary at the 1928 Bedford Falls high school graduation dance (aka his younger brother’s
prom). George and Mary expertly dance the Charleston on a stage built above a pool,
fall in the water, and continue dancing. George (in oversized pants) walks home Mary (in a
bathrobe). Later that night, George’s father has a stroke. George will manage his father’s
business through the Great Depression (and his own), and give his tuition money to his
brother, and marry Mary. The prom marks George’s transition from youthful idealism into a nuanced
and complex adulthood. Another film that uses a scene about prom
to comment on American society is Grease, the 1978 film, based on the musical by Jim
Jacobs and Warren Casey. Grease portrays a romanticized fantasy version of 1950s America
in which class and gender roles seem clear. But the film is shot through the lens of the
more chaotic 1970s, when these class and gender were as hectic as a hand jive. Film scholar
Barbara Jane Brickman argues that the 1960s and 1970s were marked by a series of, quote,
“cultural earthquakes [….] The pill had become widely available and contributed to
a sexual revolution; the youth revolts, countercultural movements, political upheaval, and Vietnam
nightmare of the 1960s had changed the country forever; the civil rights, women’s rights,
and gay rights movements had worked to redefine identity and equality under the law; and the
political and economic crises of the early 1970s decimated trust in traditional authorities
and national mythologies.” For this reason, there was a surge in nostalgia
for an imagined version of the 1950s. Grease aestheticizes those standard prom clichés
(the outfits, the rides, the decorated gym!). But it also represents a buttoned up 1950s
style prom on the brink of implosion. Our secondary hero Kenickie is on the verge of
fisticuffs with Craterface Balmudo over Rizzo. Dance battles threaten to end in violence
and teen promiscuity. So it’s less corsages and punch, and more condoms and punches. But
ultimately the masculine violence onscreen is more about fixing the curl in the front
of your pompadour, and dance offs, than it is about any real physical threat. Brickman explains that in her view, Grease
portrays the male idol with so much irony that it actually undermines its force. Grease
presents the 1950s prom as a campy, nostalgic performance. It openly mocks the idea that
prom is a legitimate “rite of passage” and it draws attention to the toxicity of
the vision of masculinity that the rituals associated with prom seem to promote. Much as the term prom had a resurgence in
texts during the 1980s, prom scenes appeared quite frequently in major films during this
decade. However, prom scenes in some of the major films of this era did less to provide
cultural criticism than to reinforce some of the more material values of capitalist
America. Consider this 1980s prom epic by teen movie
machine John Hughes: Pretty in Pink starring 80s idol Molly Ringwald. After Andie transitions
to adulthood at her prom, the film closes as Andie and her rich crush Blane make out
in the parking lot to OMD’s “If You Leave.” In this scene, Hughes suggests that Andie
achieves adult status by retaining the option to ride home in Blane’s BMW. Rather than
critique a classist and materialist subset of American culture, this film actually endorses
its values. So if previous prom movies were about growing up, finding love, and moving
on, then the 1980s spin on these movies was growing up, finding love, and moving on…in
a better car than the one you showed up in. Bye Bye Duckie, hello Blane. Get outta her
dreams and into his car. Of course, even these more precarious prom
fantasies are not accessible to all American teens. In Georgia, some towns still debate
whether to desegregate graduation parties and the town of Charleston, Mississippi waited
until 2008 to accept the actor Morgan Freeman’s 1997 offer to finance an integrated prom.
Proms also can alienate those who do not conform to the heteronormative paradigm. Some schools
still cite policies banning same-sex couples, despite the 1980 ruling by the US District
Court in Rhode Island (the case of Fricke v. Lynch), which upheld a gay student’s
right to have a same-sex date at a school dance. And media representations of prom are also
evolving. Take for example a recent indie film, Death to Prom, that reimagines some
classic prom films with gay characters. So the images and representations we see of proms
in popular culture often reflect the social upheavals present in teen culture in any given
decade. And it’s all set to music. Today, it’s arguable about whether prom continues
to play an active role in helping teenagers explore what it means to be an “adult”
in American society. And that’s mainly because we’ve stopped looking at it exclusively
as a rite of passage, and started talking about it as a night of escapism from the pressures
of the real adult world. In a modern prom night movie you’re more
likely to see your classmates dancing wildly and taking selfies than challenging someone
from the nearest school over who gets to date the prettiest girl in town. But as we’ve
shed some of the more outdated and antiquated ideologies that have come along with prom,
it still maintains its mythical allure as a celebration of the end of high school and
the first (timid) steps into the adult world of being 18+. So whether you’re dropping that estimated
$919 on prom swag (over a ⅓ of which is actually spent on “promposals” if you
can believe it), or going a more frugal DIY route by making a dress that goes viral, prom
is still a huge part of the American high school experience. And in some ways it gets
to be the final bookend of your years of teen angst and the beginning of the endless years
of your adult angst that await you. Prom: usually kinda disappointing but still better
than aging without music.

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100 thoughts on “Why Do We Go to Prom?

  1. This episode was another great fan suggestion sent to me on Youtube from Charlyndria Horton! Thanks so much for requesting this, we had too much fun making it. Now I have the hand jive from Grease stuck in my head. So it was a win/win for me.


  2. I was awaiting lovely appearance of Carrie as a "prom movie" but was just little bit disappointed 😀

  3. $900 into a small stock account for the kid. Thats a win for their future that is so much better for their "adulthood" than one night of expectations that will be of no importance a year down the line. I wish I'd understood that when my kids were in high school. If prom seems like the most important thing that happened in high school, you did it wrong…and of course there's "Prom night dumpster baby" (admit it, you probably sang that to the original music).

  4. Prom, to me, was little more than than a fantasy wedding with all the worst people invited. It was a party, pure and simple. Homecoming dance was similar. I had to put up with these jerks all year. At a dance they were jerks^2 because they weren't constrained by study or the teacher. So I didn't go, and I didn't miss it. 5th and 10th year reunions were the same. Get up to 25th year and people are halfway mature with better social navigation, and the party is a nice way to catch up and dance like a fool. Anyway, you stop caring and be yourself then.

  5. Movies don't equal real life. It's Hollywood's misguided thinking about what is real & making money from it.

  6. Promposals are among the worst things the younger generation has given to America. They are almost as vomit-inducing as public marriage proposals.
    What ever happened to the days of just walking up to the person you wanted to invite and asking them?
    Not to mention putting all sorts of pressure on the person being asked to say "yes".

  7. We have a leavers ball in the UK, but couldn't go because of bigotry. We were advised not to go, by a nice teacher who overherd the Head. He said he'd kick me and girlfriend out if we went. He even said he'd call the police if we may a fuss.

  8. Gee, I’m sure kids would regret spending over 900 when they realize how broke they will be come college time.

  9. Being a nerd in the era, I skipped prom. I still wonder if I missed anything. It took me a bit longer than most to grow up. I consider college graduation my 'coming into adulting', more than any other time. Just not what most of society chooses to views as a life demarcation.

  10. Could this channel post positive or neutral content? I feel these videos are just always so negative. I'm going to go unsubscribe.

  11. She is so fucking good. Such a fucking good public speaker, I wonder how many takes there are. If any

  12. I enjoyed this… Not because I love prom. In fact I went one year and then decided it was dumb. But I wanna know why it is seen as a "coming of age" ritual because I never saw it that way. It just seemed like a dumb dance that I had momentary fun at. I just never knew people saw it as something this important

  13. It seems almost a pity this series probably takes most of your time because it looks like you could build a radiant path as a YouTube film critic… 😉 But then again you're so good at what you do on this channel and few (if any) other YouTubers do that so everybody wins, I guess. 🤔 – We as viewers gain a unique historical channel and movie reviewers are spared to face fierce competition. 😝

  14. I wonder if promposals are such a thing because the professional-managerial class is delaying marriage and the working class is forgoing marriage entirely, so what would've been expressed as actual marriage proposals are now manifesting as promposals… or, ya know, it could be social media… or a combination of both factors.

  15. Originally "Pretty in Pink" was supposed to end with Andie and Ducky being together but John Hughes was concerned he'd actually be sending the message that two people from different classes shouldn't end up together so he changed the ending. I'd argue that's more about Blaine growing up (rejecting his classist friends' and parents' ideals to choose Andie) but also about Andie's decision to stand on her own ("I just wanted them to know they didn't break me"). She goes to the prom in a killer dress despite not having the money for one (though she did get fabric from her friend and dad, suggesting it's not about how much money you have but more about having good relationships with others, in a very ABC Afterschool Special way), which also kinda gives the finger to the 80s worship of capitalism. I'd say it still meets the formula you spoke of earlier. I agree about "Sixteen Candles", though. Just cringeworthy all these years later.

  16. The prettiest girl in my town is now being clapped Logan Paul so I think it's safe to say that question is out of the books.

  17. I think prom is fun if you're into it but kind of a waste of money. My portion was in 1995 and I spent $1,000 on me and my dates dress, hair, tux, limo, dinner and flowers. We were there 2 hours and they played country music that no one danced to. Except the strange kids that creeped me out. It was a waste of money.

  18. I went once at 17 and again at 19. I enjoyed myself so much more the second time, knowing that prom is all hype alleviated much of the pressure on what to expect and allowed me to actually enjoy the party.

  19. I didn’t spend a lot for prom. I bought a clearance rack dress at Macy’s did my own hair and makeup and borrowed accessories and jewelry from my mom. I went with friends we all went stag and had a great time. I got upset bc my three strand pearl bracelet broke all over the dance floor and it was my great grandmothers. People stopped mid dancing to stoop and pick up tiny pearls!! Embarrassingly my parents came to get me at the end. But it was a lovely time. Otherwise I was not allowed to go to other activities so I really cherished this.

  20. I can verify that I certainly did not want anything to do with prom as a queer teenager. Although that might have to do with my own interests and disinterests as much as prom being historically pretty heteronormative.

  21. Every time I think, 'This video isn't for me,' you prove me wrong. I am constantly drawn in and engaged the entire time. You are a fantastic teacher.

  22. I think a major aspect of prom that is still a definite right of passage is the purchase of what is likely a young man’s first suit. My prom suit was my only suit until I could afford to buy my own new one far after college.

  23. $900? I feel like this is a gross overestimation. I went in the late 2000s and I don't know anyone who spent even a third of that money.

  24. Utah is an interesting place for culture. Every dance (Homecoming, Prom, Sadie Hawkins, and many others) has to have one of those elaborate proposals, with an equally elaborate response. There's a "day-date", usually something like laser tagging or a picnic, a dinner, the dance, and often a post-dance party like a movie or campfire. It was a lot of fun, but a lot of work…

  25. I'd like to see the origins of special education. I've asked for this before, and I know it's likely not a popular request. But as a person with a learning disability, its a topic people need to better understand, especially within the communities of academia, science and history buffs. As much as I love both science and history, I'm not able to be a part of any science or nerd communities because I have learned my issues with spelling and reading make me unwelcome. I spend more time defending my challenges than loving science. Maybe things would change if they better understood what it took for me to have the right to the same education as them. I'm 40 which means I went to school when I was still designated as mentally retarded.
    Thank you.

  26. Wait, people spend that much on prom??! I wore the green medieval reproduction dress I wore in eighth grade to a dance (if it fits, it fits), and made a new kirtle to go under it so it’d look nice. The most expensive things I got for prom were the ticket ($15) and dinner ($20). If you’re shelling out hundreds of dollars on prom, that’s downright wasteful.

  27. You highlight a number of prom films but how about prom horror including the "Carrie" and "Prom Night" franchises?

  28. I guess Prom for me really did mark my entry into adulthood. It was the day before my 18th birthday, so I was 17 during Prom, then at midnight, I became 18 and a lot of friends wished me happy birthday then.

  29. i didn't really care about prom, but i went anyway just to have an opportunity to dress up and hang out with my friends. it was fun, but nothing incredible

  30. People used to tell me I would regret not going to my prom, but here it is 17 years later and my only regret is telling people I didn't go because they assume I regret it but SURPRISE. I DON'T AND NEVER WILL.

  31. I didn't go… didn't know what the point was then, now I kinda get why so many people were so stressed over it. lol, I joined the USMC lol.

  32. I think Prom comes more from the French word "Promotion" which means achievement of an higher level in this context. It means the same thing in English.

  33. Prom seems to me to be a precursor to a wedding. It's an old fashioned construct that sets young people up for the most anxiety they will have their whole school career. Yes, I went to my high schools junior and senior prom; and yes, I had fun at both. However, I would've been MUCH better off if I didn't have to worry about affording a dress, having a date, trying to get there (our proms were at a ballroom thirty miles away from the school), and every other trivial detail that surrounds Prom. I'm surprised that some more progressive schools haven't done away with prom altogether, or made it less formal. High school seniors get plenty of dances and parties anyway. I probably could've done without the added pressure at the time.

  34. I just cant get over how professional you are. It's clear that you're very hardworking in your field. I hope you do well in all of your endeavors!

  35. What?? How was that average calculated? Lol I put on one of my dad's dress shirts and some slacks for my prom. I always thought people were whack getting limos and all that

  36. I'm scrolling and scrolling but no one has commented on prom outside of Europe. I'm from Czechia (Central Europe) and we have a Maturity Ball – it is similar and also quite a bit different from American prom. For example, it is 100% organized by the graduating class and is never held in the school gym (way too small and not fancy enough) – as a class, we had to reserve and pay for a ballroom, a band, moderator, decorations, sell tickets, raise funds and arrange the program. We invite are families (including grandparents and younger siblings (even if they are just eight), teachers, friends, schoolmates. The Ball is for the graduates as well as for everyone that knows them to realize that they are now mature, capable adults that will be leaving home very soon (everyone has usually already turned 18 at this point).

  37. I went to prom in 2004 and you know who was prom king and queen the kids on the freaking prom committee….smh
    I hated that school . I want a prom do over I never got asked to prom . My god brother and i just went half tix because it was the same price for a single tix for prom.

  38. I only went to my senior prom, my sister sewed my dress, and I wore shoes I already owned, I only spent $20 on the prom ticket. On the bright side the ticket came with a free t shirt

  39. It's funny that the word prom comes from the french word "promenade" but when movies are translated and dubbed into french, they call it "bal de promo" which more or less means "ball of the graduated".
    "Promo" is like the short version of "promotion" which in this case means the group of people that are going to graduate.

  40. Do you realize that you are Black? You failed to show Black people attending proms. I found this worthless, uninformative, really wonder what happened to you and exactly where your head is. Sad to observe how you present yourself. Hopefully you will wake up and find your true self.

  41. This was a great video as usual! If you haven't already done it, could you make a video about various cultural rites of passage? Bar/Bat Mitzvahs, Quinceñera, etc.?

  42. Interesting 🙂 But also slightly depressing near the end. When you said "Prom is not available to all" I assumed you were going to be talking about poverty, but segregation?!? Same sex dates not allowed? In some places the '50s are alive and kicking…

  43. These millennials should be happy they didn’t have to endure square dancing in gym class like we did

  44. Me and my dad didn’t go to our proms. I don’t care for dances, unless
    I’m at a ball and know the dances.

  45. I didn't go to prom, I saw it as pointless. It was a waste of money and I was a loner in high school, so I had no one to go with. For me high school wasnt about having friends, but to just get through high school period. I was happy enough about finally graduating, prom was in inconsequential.

  46. And for us the ones outside from the US, it is a school theing only they have, like football teams, lockers, popular guys and school buses

  47. Can u do a Origin of Halloween, how it migrated from Europe to America, and the orgin of Theme parks, like Six Flags and why there are state fairs.

  48. What's the point of football homecomings? Are they not pointless social functions (leading question)? Why is the team coming home so integral to my educational experience (high school or college)? I'm not in school anymore, but it is still stupid.

  49. Is it ethical to try to "make a move" on your maid? If not? Why does George Bailey do this? I know it is a 40s film, but still. She's also African American and portly (mamie stereotype). She tells him off. The family laugh. Why does this scene in this American Christmas classic disturb me, even though I like the conflict between the banker and George Bailey.

  50. I'd be curious to hear about the origins of the Pledge of Allegiance to the US flag, and especially how that was added to daily school life.

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